Home Computer: As productive as a fish out of water: 'Utility' programs will provide hours of fun and can even be useful. Andrew Brown puts his desktop in order

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The Independent Online
A RECENT survey by Microsoft, the world's largest computer software company, found that the average word processor spent 50 per cent of his or her time typing and 50 per cent of it formatting - changing typestyles, layout and so on.

In other words, the effect of modern 'productivity tools' as the latest large-scale computer programs rather grandly call themselves - is that people waste half the time they spend working.

This came powerfully to mind when playing with PC Tools for Windows, a set of programs which aim to make your PC-compatible safer, more powerful and easier to work with. They are also tremendous fun - which is where the trouble starts.

'Utilities' like PC Tools comprise two sorts of program: those you do not know you want until you need them desperately, like the ones which recover lost data; and those you did not know you needed till you found you wanted them like mad, such as 'screen savers' - which cover your monitor in tropical fish when you are not using it to extend screen life - or replacements for the file manager in Windows, to move, copy, and delete files.

PC Tools for Windows replaces the standard, rather tedious and clumsy Windows opening display of program icons dominated by the Program Manager window. Instead, you get - well, anything you want really. You can have a different screen layout - 'desktop' - for every sort of work you do. These contain groupings of files and programs that you use together, represented by neat little icons which are more powerful and indeed expressive than their Microsoft Windows counterparts.

They can be supplemented with 'toolbars' at the top of the screen, with 'menus' of instructions that pop up from nowhere at the touch of the right mouse button; and custom menus that hang down from the title bar at the top of the screen. The program even comes with an assortment of truly ridiculous screen savers to take over your screen after any interval of idleness. My favourite is the 'food fight', which makes it appear that someone is standing behind you and throwing pies, eggs and grapes at the screen, which all splatter against it - with sound effects - when they land. Really big-time productivity enhancement.

It is natural and useful to have different screen layouts for different jobs. I have one screen layout for editing this page, containing a database program which keeps track of who is writing what and when, a communications program to collect mail to the page; my contacts book; and even, should all these fail, a word processor to do some work with.

From this I can jump with two mouse clicks to a completely different desktop for communicating with various on-line systems, or one full of games for the children; and one for file management and fooling around with the system.

There are cheaper programs to provide the 'virtual desktops', but PC Tools is slicker and more flexible than the competition. It contains an excellent file manager and viewer. If you have several thousand files on your hard disk, nothing is more certain than that you have forgotten what 90 per cent of them are. PC Tools will show you them as they expect to be seen without having to load them into the programs with which they were created: pictures will be pictures, word processor files made by all the main programs will appear with their proper layout and typography.

As well as the desktop replacement, PC Tools for Windows contains a large collection of the programs of the desperately needed variety: things to back up your data on to a tape or floppy disks, recover deleted files, tune up the performance of hard disks and protect your system against viruses. The virus protection is an enlarged version of the one licensed by Microsoft for MS-Dos 6.

The manual is an inch thick and intimidating in proportion. But it is clearly written, fairly well indexed and largely unnecessary due to the clarity of the on-line help system.

The question remains: is this package worth pounds 140's worth of anyone's private money? Not if all you do is sit down for a couple of hours a week to write letters. You should still do some of the things this package does for you: such as backing up your data regularly and checking incoming disks for viruses, but you can do both these things for less money at a certain cost in inconvenience with a product like MS-Dos 6. Backing up your data can even be accomplished with nothing more than self-discipline and a supply of floppy disks.

But if you have a powerful Windows system and sit in front of it for five or six hours a day, the answer is probably yes. For the money, you get a high level of data protection, and the happy certainty of hours wasted getting yourself more efficient.

It only takes up 15 megabytes of disk space, too.

Vital statistics:

System: PC-compatible/Dos

Requirements

Hardware: 15 megabytes of disk space

Software: Windows

Price:

List: pounds 142

Street: pounds 100.

Availability: dealers, superstores.

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